The Child Protection Systems Royal Commission and Remote Aboriginal Communities
Many reports and inquiries, but little positive change
The many reports, inquests and inquiries about child protection over the years tell us that we have not adequately addressed the issue of keeping children safe from harm. South Australia has had four independent child protection inquiries, since the Layton Review in 2003.
In 2003, the Report of the Review of Child Protection in South Australia – Our best investment: A state plan to protect and advance the interests of children (Layton Review) provided a set of recommendations that called for an overhaul of the system in order to keep children safe.
This was followed in 2008 by the Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry: Allegations of sexual abuse and death from criminal conduct (the Mullighan CISC Inquiry).
In 2008, the report on Children on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands (Mullighan) Commission of Inquiry focused on issues relating to Aboriginal children on the APY Lands.
In 2013, the Royal Commission 2012–2013: Report of Independent Education Inquiry, (the Debelle Inquiry) was submitted to Government.
Child Protection Systems Royal Commission – The Life They Deserve
Even though we’ve had significant investigations into the Government’s ability and capacity to manage child protection effectively and a wide range of recommendations have been made, Justice Nyland’s report confirms that child protection systems are still ill-equipped to respond appropriately to the needs of children who are at risk.
Justice Nyland reviews Children on APY Lands (Mullighan) Commission of Inquiry
The issues identified in the APY Lands Mullighan Inquiry prompted the Royal Commission to again consider the situation of children across the APY Lands and also in Yalata and Oak Valley. The communities of Yalata and Oak Valley receive less attention than the APY Lands, but the Royal Commission found that children in these communities experience many of the same difficulties.
Nyland’s report states:
As in other parts of South Australia, it is difficult to measure with certainty the incidence of child maltreatment in the APY Lands, Yalata and Oak Valley. However, the evidence suggests high levels of child vulnerability and maltreatment.
According to 2012 data, 90 per cent of children aged five years in the APY Lands are vulnerable in one or more domains of human development, including physical (54 per cent), social (44 per cent), emotional (51 per cent), language (56 per cent) and communication (48 per cent). This excludes children with a diagnosed special need or disability.
In a 2012 study, an average of 70 per cent of children across the APY Lands, Oak Valley and Yalata failed a hearing screening. A recent survey of children under five years in one community showed 75 per cent had significant hearing infections, perforations or otitis media.
Measures including the introduction of Opal fuel across the APY Lands have reduced the dangerous practice of petrol sniffing to the point where it is rarely seen. However, those who sniffed petrol in the past suffer serious, long-term harm. Many are now having children and struggle to care for themselves, far less raise children safely. Food security and nutrition continue as issues in all APY Lands communities, Yalata and Oak Valley (page 469).
A Review conducted by the Australian Centre for Child Protection (ACCP), as requested by the Royal Commission, found that government responses either missed the intent of the recommendations of the Children on APY Lands (Mullighan) Commission of Inquiry or did not achieve the desired outcomes. The findings of this Review indicate that a number of responses to the Mullighan APY Inquiry that are listed as having been completed, involve ongoing or outstanding issues, particularly in relation to the ongoing reviewing and evaluation of services and policies.
Justice Nyland concludes that:
It is plain that despite significant changes to service provision since the APY Lands Inquiry, many children remain highly vulnerable and continue to experience all forms of maltreatment (page 470).
Other key points about the APY Lands that are highlighted in Justice Nyland’s report include the following:
- Recruiting and retaining sufficient Families SA and support staff in remote communities is a longstanding problem. For extended periods in recent years, about half of the available positions in the APY Lands have been vacant. This undermines the ability to offer timely, effective responses to children and families.
- In response to this challenge, in late 2014, Families SA implemented a fly-in fly-out (FIFO) service model for most of its staff on the APY Lands. There are two FIFO teams, each with a team leader and seven practitioners.
- The FIFO model assumes the presence of several Lands-based workers (LBWs), each resident in a community. The APY Lands Mullighan Inquiry recommended at least six LBWs, one for each major school on the APY Lands. The full complement of LBWs are not currently employed.
- The APY Lands Inquiry noted the shortage of suitable Aboriginal language interpreters. Eight years later, the shortage remains. Practitioners from the Agency do not generally use formal interpreters as part of their daily business.
- The APY Child Protection Protocols (the APY Protocols) were agreed between key APY Lands agencies in 2010. They were intended to promote consistent responses to allegations of child abuse and neglect, in particular sexual abuse. The APY Protocols were reviewed in 2015 and relevant stakeholders agreed to revoke them and be guided instead by the state-wide Inter-agency Code of Practice (ICP). The updated ICP deals more comprehensively with all forms of abuse and neglect, not just child sexual abuse. It includes an appendix that contains principles for working with Aboriginal people.
Nyland Report and remote Aboriginal communities in SA
The Royal Commission has identified some key challenges to child wellbeing and service provision in remote Aboriginal communities and recommended key areas that need improvement. The Royal Commission’s report highlights the importance of involving Aboriginal communities in order for child protection initiatives to be successful. The Commission’s first recommendation is therefore that the government should consult with each community about the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.
For the full details of Justice Nyland’s commentary on remote Aboriginal communities and associated recommendations, please refer to Part Five of her report – Children with diverse needs.